Silence shattered with a whisper to the heart

Australian, The (Australia) -
Author: MARK McKENNA
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Unashamedly political, Henry Reynolds has made a career out of making a difference with his writing, and found a large audience in the process

AT Sydney's Gleebooks bookshop on March10, 2008, Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake were in conversation with The Australian's Paul Kelly, who was launching their book, Drawing the Global Colour Line. For an hour the conversation turned on the international dimensions of racial ideas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the first question that came from the audience to Reynolds was about something else. Standing, a retired high school teacher harked back to Reynolds's earlier work on Aboriginal history. ``As far as I'm concerned, you're an Australian hero,'' she declared. ``I've used your books for years in my teaching and I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for writing the history we weren't told.'' Try as he might, Reynolds, who has just turned 71, cannot escape the reputation he has earned as the historian who exposed the violence perpetrated by Europeans on the frontiers of settlement.

In July 2008 I visited Launceston to interview Reynolds. Searching through the papers still held at his home, the volume of correspondence from readers was striking. With few exceptions, their letters were a chorus of appreciation. There were critical letters bordering on the vitriolic that tended to complain about the focus of Reynolds's work, as if the writers simply didn't want to hear about Aborigines let alone contemplate the violence of Australia's frontier history; but more typical were comments such as these: ``[Y our book has changed the way I view ourselves as a people.'' and ``Here was the truth about the indigenous people set down after your years of research in most elegant and readable prose, thank you for it.'' One of the most compelling letters I read came from a woman who wrote to Reynolds in 2004:

``I am a young Australian musician living in Paris. I'm writing to you to express my gratitude and appreciation for your book Why Weren't We Told?, which I have just finished reading. Through most of the last chapter I shed tears of pride, anger, sorrow, love, hope and homesickness. You have shed so much light on race relations in Australia -- something deeply important to me since childhood. You have eloquently expressed facts and ideas that I had no awareness of, and others that I have always felt to be true but have never managed to articulate ... Books like yours and many other inspirational works by Australian writers, musicians, performers, etc lead me to hope and believe that we are moving gradually forward as a nation and that better things are possible. I hope one day to contribute something to this movement and progress.''

There is a recurring motif of respect and admiration in these letters. Reynolds's readers almost always write of having discovered or confronted a past that was previously unknown to them. They write of a silence shattered, and suggest that a veil has been pulled back, as if they see their country's past in a different light for the first time. But there is another recurring theme: they identify with Reynolds's personal journey, particularly the one they find expressed in Why Weren't We Told?, first published in 1999. They are moved to write to him of their own experience, tell him their own stories, and in doing so they narrate the same journey Reynolds expresses so powerfully: from ignorance to knowledge, passing through stages of confrontation and astonishment, before moving on to a determined commitment to contribute to political change. Since the 1970s this way of speaking about Aboriginal history -- as a journey from ignorance to shock, confrontation, and potentially life-changing awareness -- has become something of a civic rite of passage for many Australians. Whether about frontier violence or stolen children, the common trope is one of revealing a hidden past, one that carries the potential to shake the foundations of the individual's sense of belonging and the nation's very legitimacy.

Regardless of the fact that many other historians have written on frontier conflict in Australia, it is Reynolds's voice that has cut through to a wide readership. His name and work are more closely identified than those of any other historian with the breaking of the Great Australian Silence. While many historians have been critical of his work, often complaining about its tendency to be framed too narrowly by contemporary politics -- whether it be native title, Aboriginal sovereignty or reconciliation -- to date there has been little attempt to understand either the public impact of his work or the reasons for his success, much less so, for example, than for comparable figures such as Manning Clark or Geoffrey Blainey.

Since the '70s Australians have grown accustomed to viewing prominent historians as figures of controversy, as warriors rather than engaged scholars. We often seem incapable of paying tribute to our leading intellectuals, preferring instead to cut them down to size. In the public domain, intellectuals can often be dismissed as meddling academics, removed from the cut and thrust of realpolitik, while inside the academy they can be seen as self-serving and attention-seeking generalists more interested in publicity than scholarship. Reynolds's scholarship has managed to achieve a degree of public influence accorded few academics. By any measure, the public impact of his work has been remarkable.

Reynolds's 12 sole-authored histories, from The Other Side of the Frontier in 1981 to Nowhere People in 2005, have sold more than 175,000 copies. Two books in particular stand out in terms of public readership: The Other Side of the Frontier, the first in his frontier trilogy, selling more than 35,000 copies, and Why Weren't We Told?, his personal reflection, selling more than 40,000 copies. The Law of the Land, published in 1987 and written not for historians but for a select audience of lawyers, politicians, journalists and opinion makers, has sold about 15,000 copies. Most of Reynolds's other books have not exceeded sales of 10,000, which frustrates him.

``If you've got something to say,'' he remarks, ``you want as many people as possible to hear it.''

But of all his books, it is The Other Side of the Frontier that has made the most impact, largely because of the sense of shock so many readers claim to have experienced when confronting the history of frontier violence. Its language and style still speak to the present generation, and it seems likely it will continue to be one of the first books read by young Australians interested in understanding the history of the frontier. In this sense, Reynolds's work has transcended his own generation and become one of the bedrock references of Australian history.

The reach of his work supplies the evidence. Many of Reynolds's books have been used extensively in history curriculums across the country, have regularly reached the top 10 bestseller lists and several have won, or been short-listed for, leading literary prizes. His most popular book, Why Weren't We Told, was even reviewed in the tabloid magazine Australasian Post.

Indeed, Reynolds's histories have achieved what few manage to do. They have reached an audience beyond the academy, the political class and the educated lay reader, and aroused the curiosity of those who have read little or no Australian history before. In television, film, music, art and popular culture generally, his work has informed and inspired major productions. He supplied most of the script for the influential ABC television series Frontier, featured prominently in the documentary film Mabo, and contributed to a seven-part SBS series on the history of colonialism as well as a BBC 1 documentary on the history of racism. It is not only book sales that have guaranteed the reach of his work, then, but his talent for the art of clear speech on radio and television.

Bain Attwood has described the way in which the democratisation of history in recent decades has resulted in a proliferation of historical narratives jostling for acceptance in the public realm, provoking what he calls ``a struggle over historical authority''. Reynolds's work is not separate from this process of democratisation; indeed, it has served to underwrite more popular forms and uses of history, such as the 2003 children's history book by John Marsden and Shaun Tan, The Rabbits, which tells the story of the coming of Europeans (read rabbits) from an Aboriginal point of view, and the work of the prominent indigenous artist, Gordon Bennett, and popular songwriters Paul Kelly and Nick Cave. Kelly has dedicated the lyrics of several of his songs to Reynolds. It was touring northern Australia in his younger years, and reading Reynolds's work, that set Kelly's commitment to indigenous justice alight: ``[The Other Side of the Frontier opened my eyes to a lot of history in Australia that we never got taught in schools. We were told [settlement happened pretty peacefully, but Reynolds makes a very good point that wherever conditions suited, there was a war going on.''

Among the piles of documents relating to Reynolds's public life I found a hastily scribbled pencil addition to the typescript of a public lecture he gave in Sydney in 2001. At the last minute Reynolds had been asked by one of the organisers to supply a short biographical sketch. ``What am I?'' he asked himself. His answer was brief: ``Historian, writer, activist, intermittent self-trained bush lawyer and public intellectual.'' Reynolds's public persona differs markedly from those of other historians, such as Manning Clark. For one thing, he is distinctly lacking in costume drama. While Clark's voice was musical, Reynolds's is measured and authoritative. He speaks deliberately and slowly; every word is enunciated with keen precision; when certain words are emphasised, they seem to hang in the air, resounding with powerful clarity; seemingly unflappable, his voice oozes gravitas. On television, Clark's eyes danced about, he shifted in his seat, paused and dived into long silences, sometimes breaking down in tears; watching Reynolds recently, I noticed that he did not seem to move, his face almost statuesque. Unlike Clark, his media presence is not as reliant on character, a fact that makes his public standing more intriguing. Reynolds is a recognisable name before he is a recognisable figure, an intellectual with a public profile rather than a public figure who happens to be an historian.

In contrast to other renowned historians such as Clark, Blainey and W.K. Hancock, Reynolds is no preacher's son; the origin of his proselytising zeal is exclusively secular. Clark and Blainey gained notoriety as much for their political interventions as their work, whereas Reynolds is notable more for the sustained legal, political and cultural impact of his work as a whole. Its underlying message, while being redemptive, has also been far more subversive, for example, arguing that the Aboriginal dead in the frontier wars should be commemorated within the Australian War Memorial, and he has been far less willing to embrace images of traditional Australian nationalism -- the bushman, the larrikin and the battler -- than Blainey and Clark. Yet in another, important way the public impact of Reynolds's work relates closely to the influence of Blainey and Clark, because all three addressed a larger question: the relationship between the historian, the writing of Australian history and the formation of a post-colonial national identity in Australia.

In recent times, Australian politics has skated on the thin ice of a highly contested national history. Craving historical tradition, longing for a deeply rooted past and still uncertain of the place of Aboriginal Australia within that past, the country that gave up on the British myth in the '60s has since looked to historians and writers to play the role of the representative figure, the singular voice of the national interpreter who will provide moral guidance, someone who will find a path through the competing voices and histories to articulate a clear identity.

Some writers, such as David Malouf, recoil from playing such a role, seeing the phenomenon as one peculiar to ``new countries''. But there is no denying the demand. Media, prime ministers and political parties, creative artists, schoolteachers -- all those who ply the trade of representing the nation -- yearn for a narrative of some kind around which the nation can bind. Reynolds has willingly played the role of the national interpreter.

The public respect Reynolds's work has garnered has given him a platform to play this role and provide political and social commentary. While he had long been involved in public debate, it was not until the late '80s that his public profile lifted to the point of becoming one of Australia's leading public intellectuals. The invasion-settlement debate that plagued the bicentenary celebrations in 1988 was a binary opposition Reynolds's work helped to popularise. Throughout Reynolds's history one question resounded above all others: was the British settlement of Australia legally and morally legitimate? In its Mabo decision of 1992, the High Court of Australia handed down a judgment that was consistent with the argument Reynolds had put forward in The Law of the Land: native title had always been recognised within the common law. One of the judges, William Deane, famously forwarded a copy of the court judgments to Reyndolds after the case, but has subsequently made it clear that he was simply acknowledging that Reynolds's ``published work had been of the assistance indicated by the [two relevant footnotes to the judgment''. In response to my questions, Deane was adamant: ``Certainly, I did not intend to convey the slightest suggestion that the judgment, which was essentially based on legal reasoning and precedent, was somehow the result of Henry Reynolds's historical writings.'' Public perception, however, was often different.

Throughout the '90s, Reynolds's work and political commentary became increasingly central to both federal and state politics. In the national media he explained why Aboriginal people mourned the arrival of Europeans in 1788, he defended the Mabo and Wik decisions vigorously, he highlighted Pauline Hanson's racism and prime minister John Howard's refusal to condemn it, he attacked the federal government's response to Wik, he defended multiculturalism and he entered the republic debate.

For most of this period, Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson, Patrick Dodson, Mick Dodson, Lowitja O'Donoghue and Marcia Langton referred frequently to Reynolds as the authoritative voice in indigenous history. Langton compared him to a priest or tribal elder, while Pearson credited Reynolds with single-handedly showing ``that native title was recognised by the Imperial government [and that the colonists contrived to deny these rights''. The moral, political and legal thrust of Reynolds' work was seen by indigenous leaders to underwrite the social and political agenda of the broader movement for Aboriginal reconciliation at the time: native title, self-determination, a treaty, constitutional recognition of indigenous rights, a formal resolution to the reconciliation process and an apology to the stolen generations.

At the same time, Reynolds came under attack from conservatives because his work on native title was seen as the pillar of a legal and historical revolution that they knew had the potential to challenge the exclusive rights to land hitherto exercised by pastoralists and which implicitly threatened the ``honour'' of Australia's British heritage. At the height of the Wik debate, in 1998, the minister for state, senator Nick Minchin, referred to Reynolds as ``a partisan player ... an utterly unreasonable academic'' whose activities were making reconciliation ``even harder to achieve''. On occasions, Reynolds's political judgment has been questioned by both sides of politics; in 1993 he warned that Aboriginal people might turn to ``direct action or violence'' if the Keating government failed to negotiate on issues such as autonomy and self-determination. Robert Tickner, minister for Aboriginal affairs, and his Liberal counterpart, Peter Reith, both disagreed. Tickner rightly pointed out that there had ``never been a hint or suggestion that violence would ever be threatened'', while Reith advised Reynolds to ``stick to history''.

When The Australian drew national attention to Keith Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History in 2001, sparking another round in the history wars , it was hardly surprising that Reynolds's work was one of the primary targets. The public face of two decades of revisionist history, Reynolds represented the ``negative'' and ``dark'' view of Australia's past that historical writer Windschuttle and prime minister John Howard were bent on attacking. While there was a series of ReynoldsvWindschuttle heavyweight bouts across the country, the attack on Reynolds was not as personal as the attack on Blainey in the '80s or on Clark in the '90s. It was much closer to a sustained media offensive on the historical profession as a whole, designed like a smear campaign in an election. Its aim was to create perceptions and impressions among those who would never read Reynolds or Windschuttle, but who digested only the steady transmission from the newsstands and airwaves: it's not true, there was no war, few Aborigines were killed, and academic historians, those rusted-on left-wing radicals, cannot be trusted. Their work is unreliable.

Underlying this assault was the constant message that the writing of history is fundamentally an empirical and literal-minded pursuit. Historical writing, therefore, did not inhabit the realm of the imagination. Nor did it tolerate ambiguity. The past was a landscape strewn with documents that contained within them the sole truth about the past.

Yet, Windschuttle's attack on Reynolds largely failed, because Reynolds's work was grounded in the same empirical traditions he championed. Ironically, Reynolds also came across as the more detached historian. He tells the story of one public debate in Hobart, during which Windschuttle unexpectedly exploded during question time, exclaiming: ``One thing I just can't stand is people who hate their own country.'' Windschuttle's rage betrayed an emotional involvement with his material that contrasted with Reynolds's calm demeanour. And this is another reason for Reynolds's effectiveness: he manages to be passionate, yet appears detached. With calculated intensity his work has aimed at the heart of the nation-making enterprise, demanding that Aboriginal Australia, its past and present, be incorporated into the national story, not pushed to the margins.

Throughout all of Reynolds's public interventions, from the bicentenary to the more recent skirmishes in the history wars , some abiding themes resonate: a strong internationalism, especially in the field of championing human rights; a repeated warning that the ghost of racism lies just under the surface of contemporary Australia; and a long-standing determination to bring the question of indigenous rights and justice to the centre of national debate. In 1996-97, as the debates around the Wik case, Hanson's racism and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Bringing Them Home report on the removal of Aboriginal children from their families became more intense, and the Howard government increased its attack on black armband history, these themes in Reynolds's work met a need among many readers.

At the same time, with the publication of This Whispering in Our Hearts in 1998 and Why Weren't We Told? in 1999, his writings broke through to a popular audience. (These two books also followed close on the heels of Reynolds's decision to employ a literary agent in 1997, an indication that he wanted to reach out to a new readership.) This Whispering in Our Hearts presented a more appealing narrative of lone humanitarian voices calling for the protection of Aboriginal rights. ``We must avoid the view,'' Reynolds said, ``that Australian history is all dreadful. It is not all bad and not all brutal.'' One year later, after the national media had been flooded with personal testimonies from members of the Stolen Generations, Reynolds published his ``personal search for the truth about our history''. Both books were so closely tied to the reconciliation debate that history and contemporary politics sometimes merged into one pursuit. As Reynolds told Diana Giese in 1999, ``I don't think you can possibly, in my case, separate [history and politics ... politics runs through my life. And it would be hard to pretend that this bit was scholarly and this bit political ... the two were so enmeshed.''

Another quite crucial shift was under way. Reynolds was drawing on the same humanitarian traditions many of his conservative opponents espoused. In this way, his two major works completed after Mabo and Wik (This Whispering in Our Hearts and Why Weren't We Told?) helped to soften some of the conservative resistance to the history of Aboriginal dispossession. As the Bringing Them Home report was dividing many conservative voices, Reynolds's work received ringing public endorsement from leading liberal conservatives such as Robert Manne and influential conservative mavericks such as Michael Duffy.

Considering the humanitarian tradition discussed in This Whispering in Our Hearts, Reynolds argued that the word reconciliation was spoken in the 1830s in ways similar to today ... this tradition has much deeper roots than people suppose.

Three years later, accepting the Australian Humanist of the Year Award in 2001, he reflected on the public response to the book: ``Talking around Australia about this book,'' he explained, many people found the story of the ``lone humanitarians bittersweet'', but they also ``came tothe conclusion that they wanted to make sure that change would take place in their lifetime ... they wanted to make a difference now and that is the spirit we have to keep alive.''

Here was another of Reynolds's talents on display: his engagement with his audience. He draws on the public response to his work to feed his calls for political change. He not only writes for the public; he incorporates his readers' responses and stories into his scholarship and political interventions, holding a mirror up to his own readership. He is a prime example of what Alan Atkinson has called ``the vernacular historian''.

When I asked Reynolds to explain his life-long commitment to writing politically relevant history, he pointed to the crucial role played by his wife, Margaret Reynolds, human rights activist, ALP senator (1983-1999) and minister in the Hawke government (1987-1990). ``Without Margaret,'' Reynolds said, ``I would still be in an armchair. I remember Margaret saying constantly to me, as she'd say to the children, `That's all very well, but what are you going to do about it?'''

Edition: 5 - Australian Literary Review

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